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THREE’S A CHARM? It may be our Grizzlies’ third season in The Pyramid that opens Friday night against the Boston Celtics. But, sakes alive, Year One of the Jake Tsakalidis Era is upon us! No, the eminent Jerry West’s arrival a year ago did not immediately transform the Griz into contenders among the NBA’s Western Conference power elite. And his acquisition not quite a month ago of Tsakalidis and Bo Outlaw from the Phoenix Suns will hardly make West biographers forget his role in bringing the likes of Shaq and Kobe to Tinseltown. But there are some fundamental differences in the aura of Grizzlies basketball as the franchise tips-off the final season B.F (Before FedExForum). Year One (2001-02) was an unconditional honeymoon, losses be damned. Isaac Hayes greeted a sellout crowd on November 1, 2001, with a rendition of “God Bless America” that, mere weeks after the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, galvanized a new and passionate NBA audience. Memphis was, finally, Big League. Year Two (2002-03) was about growing pains, and an attempt to close the gap between the Grizzlies’ play and that of its Western Conference rivals. The newly decorated Pau Gasol -- Rookie of the Year for 2001-02 -- further established his credentials as a budding superstar. Under the guidance of new president Jerry West and long-in-the-tooth head coach Hubie Brown, Jason Williams developed into one of the league’s top five or six point guards. Memphis won a franchise-record 28 games and was but a game below .500 in The Pyramid. So what should we expect from Year Three? Short answer: 35 victories and a winning record at home. Beyond that? Again, it’s all about aura. Gasol, Williams, Shane Battier, Stromile Swift, and Lorenzen Wright are all beginning their third year in the Bluff City. These are OUR players, particularly Gasol and Battier, who never played a game in Vancouver. A surpassing joy of professional sports is the familiarity of faces. We can attach ourselves to names, numbers, voices, and playing styles in a way that’s impossible for the here-then-gone world of college sports. (Count the number of jerseys you see -- from Peabody Place to Wolfchase Galleria -- with these names across the back.) Memphis, you see, finally has its own players . . . with a following. As cozy as we may be with our Griz, you’ll see the first signs of impatience this season if the team doesn’t start to turn the corner. With young stars and the influx of talent that wasn’t here a year ago (Mike Miller, James Posey, Bo Outlaw . . . Jake Tsakalidis!), Memphis should end its drought against teams like Dallas (0-8 the last two years), Sacramento (1-7), and San Antonio (1-7). Especially on their home floor, the Grizzlies have to make life difficult for their opponents, even the title contenders. As for the league’s bottom-feeders, it’s time for Memphis to distance itself (the Grizzlies are 0-4 at L.A. against the Clippers the last two years). There’s a $250-million metaphor just south of Beale Street, growing beam-by-beam, level-by-level just as West and friends are building a team capable of playing basketball in May, perhaps even June. The Grizzlies’ powers that be realize their club needs to be at least on the verge of the playoffs when the team’s grand new barn opens for play in 2004. Playing in a conference with arguably the league’s five best teams, Memphis will be fighting for one of three postseason berths over the next few years. (And life won’t get any easier when the NBA realigns next year, with the Grizzlies presumably joining a new division alongside San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, and New Orleans.) But just as the FedExForum is reshaping the downtown skyline, our Grizzlies seem to be making the kind of progress best measured with a dose of long-term perspective. Year Three is upon us and the fact is, Big Jake’s gonna have to fight for playing time.

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